'Church Ladies' take charge tonight
Somewhere not too far from Garrison Keillor's mythical Lake Woebegone, there's a Lutheran congregation where much of the power is wielded not by a minister, but by the women who volunteer to work in the church basement kitchen.
The adventures of these ladies have inspired a series of long-running shows in Minneapolis that have in turn spun-off national touring companies.
Despite being set so specifically in a Midwestern church, the "Church Ladies" plays have proven to be popular all over the country.
"I liken it to `Fiddler on the Roof,' " producer-director Curt Wollan said in a recent phone interview from Minnesota.
"I'm not Jewish, and I don't know anything about being Jewish, but I love that show (because it's got) a great message about change and love and family.
"People seem to care about the characters in our shows wherever they go -- from Nashville to California -- and the reaction is almost always the same. Someone will say, `These women are just like my mother or aunt,' " Wollan said.
"Away in the Basement" takes place in 1959 on the day of the Sunday School Christmas Program.
Like the other church musicals Wollan has produced, this one shows how the women in the kitchen have more power than any outsider could imagine.
"The women really exist," Wollan stressed of his characters. "You can't run an organization like this without them."
The producer-director has talked with rabbis who say the kitchen women in their synagogues are very similar.
"You have to be really nice to the church ladies," Wollan said, laughing, of those who might underestimate their clout.
The pastor decides to get remarried in the course of the show and we see the reaction of the women in the basement who are still friends with the minister's first wife.
It wasn't until the first show kept running and running in Minneapolis that Wollan and the other creators began to plan touring versions and to envision more church ladies adventures.
"What's happened is that audiences have fallen in love with these women," he said.
The original "Church Basement Ladies" production was seen by a quarter million people during its two-and-a-half-year run at Minnesota's Plymouth Playhouse that began in September 2005.
The sequel, "Church Basement Ladies 2: A Second Helping," subsequently ran for 18 months.
The shows have moved around in time, with the first one taking place in 1968-69, the second in 1970 and the third one back in 1959.
A fourth show -- "A Mighty Fortess is Our Basement," set in 1959-60 -- has just been produced in Minnesota and Wollan believes it "is the strongest script of all of them."
At this point, Wollan said there are no plans to take his church ladies to New York City.
"We've thought about it, but there are two things you have to deal with -- it is so ... expensive and the critics can destroy you. We don't want to take that chance right now," he said.
The Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts, Fairfield University, 1073 North Benson Road, Fairfield. Friday, Dec. 16, 8 p.m. $35-$30. 203-254-4010, www.quickcenter.com.